Swinging off this post at Unlearning Economics, I was motivated to write a long comment that really ought to be blogged.
The industrial economics of extreme wealth is an interesting subject. It’s often been observed that a lot of the spending of the rich goes into positional goods. A positional good is, in a sense, in fixed supply, or rather, position itself is in fixed supply. If more of a positional good is produced, its positional value decreases. More spending on them can only inflate their prices.
The quintessential positional good is land. A lot of land is useful in itself, but it is true everywhere that owning x amount of land gives you more positional utility than an equivalent position in cash or securities, and the most sought-after land by area isn’t farmland or building plots near a container terminal or an oil well, it’s billionaires’ row, whose value is entirely positional. Land is the classic case of economic rent, and that’s what I’m driving at.
Just as rent doesn’t reflect costs of production, but only a monopoly position, the price of positional goods reflects only their positional nature and the income of those competing for them. Let’s now switch to the economics of the firm; if the price of X is dominated by economic rent, an increase in the price is mostly an increase in profit. If profits rise in some sector, capital should be preferentially allocated to it.
Clearly, you can’t manufacture Hampstead or Palo Alto or the Prinzregentenstrasse, or only with great difficulty and the risk of destroying its positional quality. You can easily manufacture more iPhones, which therefore are gradually becoming less positional. You can manufacture Vertu phones by sticking diamonds on mid-2000s down-ticket Nokias, essentially creating purely positional items. Joseph Schumpeter would of course point out that it is the aim of all enterpreneurship to be able to claim the economic rents of monopoly.
In order for capital to be reallocated to the positional sector, then, it’s necessary to invent new forms of positional competition, and ideally, ones which escape from the temptation to just be a good product that can be produced on a big scale like iPhones or VW Golfs or my trainers. And indeed, we see a sizeable economy devoted to just that. One way of achieving this is to dematerialise the product – Cory Doctorow once remarked that if they can’t define your job they can’t outsource it, and the greater the immaterial content, the more of it is concentrated in the mind of its creator and the place and time of its consumption. Therefore, it is harder to replicate. In that sense, it’s a form of economic growth that is light on resources, but it seems intuitively difficult to defend activity that is pointless, other-regarding, private, and directed to snobbery.
Another way is to increase the service content of the product. We noted that land confers more status than most goods. But servants are almost as good or better, and would you bet against slaves being better still? This is very interesting indeed, as it may well represent a deliberate reduction of productivity and therefore a net loss to society. Where wealth is used to display power over others, by deliberately wasting labour, perhaps we’re seeing something like the costly-signalling logic of the peacock’s tail, or a form of bourgeois potlatch.
I didn’t expect to end up at this conclusion, but then that sort of dÃ©paysement what a good blog is for.
There are of course other options. In so far as positional spending is directed at public beauty, it is perhaps worth having – having your name prominently displayed as a benefactor of the Royal Academy, much as I find the place annoying and reactionary, is better than spending your money like Dennis Kozlowski on that giant ice sculpture of Michelangelo’s David, pissing vodka into your guests’ glasses. (Although to be honest, if anyone’s up for reconstructing the thing as an installation somewhere public, even I’d contribute to your Kozlowski Memorial Fund. Yes, I know he’s not dead yet.) And some bits of the positional industry have complex business models that rely on everyone else as much as they do on the super-rich – fashion couldn’t support its baroque R&D-and-advertising-and-French-heritage-project top end without the high-street and wouldn’t have any ideas without the low-street.
But then, if there’s a good reason to unlearn economics in the first place it’s to respect institutions and complexity and the notion that people’s motives ought to be taken seriously, not only when they are convenient.